What do Innovation, Tempered Radicalism, and Breakfast at Tiffany's have in common? I just read a fascinating book called "Fifth Avenue, 5am", by Sam Wasson. It's about the making of the movie Breakfast at Tiffany's. I picked it up while on vacation expecting a fairly light, easy vacation read. What I found was a book that describes many of the same organizational challenges experienced by companies trying to innovate, but written in a much more engaging way than most business books.
The organizational story starts with Marty Jurow and Richard Shepard, two producers looking to make a great movie, not unlike entrepreneurs looking to start a new business. They ran across the script and against the judgment of others decided that hidden beneath the surface, it had the makings of a good, romantic comedy.
However, the story romanticized the life of a call-girl. In the Hollywood of the 1950’s, this just wasn’t done. In order to make the movie, there would need to be serious work to make the story palatable within that environment. There were strict regulatory boards, serious politics over talent selection, and too few resources to work with. Getting all the requisite approvals for a movie that was far from the “standard Hollywood formula” would be nearly impossible. Starting to sound familiar?
The book goes on to tell the story of how Jurow and Shepard navigated the environment. Whether it was intentional or not, the creators of the movie followed a lot of the advice given to large corporations about how to enable innovation to occur within their companies. Here are a few:
They recognized the initial insight illuminated by the original book, written by Truman Capote. The main character tapped into a nascent shift in the zeitgeist. The world was changing, and the book was a harbinger of what was coming. This is not unlike finding an unmet need in the market.
They took advantage of timing. At the time, the current Hollywood formula was at risk of being disrupted by the mass adoption of TV. They were able to use this to their advantage when dealing with the regulatory groups to loosen the grip on what was deemed appropriate subject matter in the movies. How often does it take the threat of death of the establishment before meaningful changes can be made?
They took risks to hire the right talent. In some cases, it involved allowing the screenwriter who was selected “politically” to write parts of the script and fail. That gave them the freedom to choose the person who did not have the experience, but did have the capability to do the job they needed. How often are people hired in large companies based on how well they did existing roles, and those skills may not be relevant in the new role?
They also understood the importance of casting a “girl next-door” like Audrey Hepburn in the lead role. Her reputation and past roles enabled the audience to accept her as a fundamentally “good girl”, and her quirky nature enabled her to be credible as a character living a very non-traditional lifestyle. This is not unlike the ideas in Maureen Scully and Debra Myerson’s article “Tempered Radicalism and the Politics of Ambivalence and Change”. From the article’s abstract; “Tempered Radicals” are individuals who identify with and are committed to their organizations, and are also committed to a cause, community, or ideology that is fundamentally different from, and possibly at odds with the dominant culture of their organization”. Casting Audrey Hepburn enabled the movie to fit into both worlds.
In my personal opinion, the ability to find such Tempered Radicals is key for any organization looking to do something different in a traditional environment. Jurow and Shepard may not have done this consciously, but if you read the book closely, their ability to hire people who could “walk on both sides of the fence” was key to the ultimate success of the movie.
As we all know, the movie was a great success, and the book illuminates many issues that business books try to dissect. What makes this book useful as a business book is that it focuses on all the irrational behaviors that exist in human nature, and their impact on the end-product. Most business books focus on the rational aspects of organizational issues. But let’s face it, organizations are collections of humans, and as long as that’s true, books like Wasson’s will impart many lessons to those willing to acknowledge human nature.
I'm working on a project now where I'm trying to create a clear separation between the multidisciplinary team process for product implementation, vs product innovation. On paper they look pretty much the same. All the disciplines are represented, and the team is aligned around a common goal.
However, when you see the teams working together, something very different is happening between them. The best analogy I've come up with so far is that the product implementation team behaves much like a soccer team. The roles are clearly laid out, and the team members are executing specific tasks based on where the ball is at the moment. On the other hand, the innovation team is operating more like a rugby team. The roles are less clearly defined, and in a scrum, it's difficult to tell who's doing what, except that they all want to get the ball somewhere else and are working toward that end.
Implementation teams can work with clearly defined roles because the end product they are charged with making has been clearly defined. Innovation teams are charged with figuring out what should be made. As such, clarity around roles is difficult, and it makes sense to have people who are more flexible and can fill gaps.
What are the characteristics you would look for if you needed to hire people to fill each type of team. How are they similar, and how are they different?
Innovation requires your organization to do something new. Not necessarily new to the world, but new to your company. If you're doing something truly new to your organization, then it's impossible to know what the end result will be. Every company is unique, so even borrowed ideas cannot be incorporated without careful integration.
One of my clients said "You can only operationalize what is known." He is right. And yet, I see so many companies looking for detailed innovation processes that will dictate the end result before a project actually begins. There are even more consultants who are selling processes that promise to do just that.
Most companies make their money by setting up processes that can run on autopilot. This only works if you know what you are making, and you have done it before. You have a benchmark for improvement. However, the results of an innovation process are not known. There is no process, tool, or technique that can determine the answer for you.
A good process will show structure and rigor in guiding the thought process, but it will never dictate an answer. An autopilot cannot make decisions. It can only execute a preset response to a known set of inputs. When you are in uncharted territory you need good people to make decisions based on the new information they receive. It is irresponsible to think that this responsibility can be passed off by choosing a "process" that will make the decisions for you.
If your organization is like most, there are many processes in place that ensure no one can make a mistake that could cost the company vast sums of money, damage its reputation, or do other terrible damage. While many of these processes are in place for a good reason, has anyone ever looked at the trade-offs that have been made as a result?
The reason I point this out is that I find it interesting that these processes are never, ever questioned. Even though I've watched companies miss out on very lucrative opportunities as a result of blindly following existing processes, I have been left wondering why no one questioned what else could have been done to have avoided missing out on the opportunity. A lot of effort goes into protecting the company from harm, which makes it all the more interesting that missed opportunities are seldom viewed as harmful.
I highly value thoughtfulness, and due diligence, and I am not advocating that companies abandon all existing processes to encourage people to chase after anything they want. Far from it. I just wanted to point out that it does seem a bit odd that questions about the value of missed opportunities are seldom, if ever, raised. It would be interesting to see if there are some processes that are costing more than they save.
Do you know why all the processes at your company exist? Would you know when their use should be questioned and/or challenged?
In the last couple of months I've found myself recommending Steven Kerr's article "On the folly of rewarding A, while hoping for B" several times, and felt I should share it more broadly. It's a classic (1995), and is short, sweet, and always worth the reminder.
I'm reminded of this when I see a friend of mine struggling with launching a new product to market. He is rewarded for successful launch of new products. His manufacturing counterparts, however, are rewarded for delivering the lowest cost, fully optimized products that can be produced. Their metrics are the same for new products as they are for existing products. I asked whether the manufacturing group could be rewarded differently for new products, maybe being measured on fewest number of days to make a new product. Of course, my friend was quick to laugh at such a suggestion.
Clearly we can see the waste that is created in the system here, and the unnecessary hurdles that are put in front of the innovation goals the company says they want to achieve. And of course, the manufacturing group doesn't want to be the reason why their company is less successful at launching new products than their competitors. But with the current system in place, this is surely what will happen.
Reward systems are one of the easiest things a company can change, and they are often the last thing that a company recognizes should be changed. And because the development cycle often carries the burden of different reward systems that have been developed in individual silos, the true consequences of changing one reward system can be difficult to assess. In addition, companies may be better served by creating reward systems based on end results than by discipline. In my friend's case, everyone who is responsible for launching new products needs to be rewarded to make that happen, and not by discipline.
If your company has clearly stated its desired innovation goals, and is having difficulty launching new, consumer relevant products, look at the reward systems in the development process. Don't look only at the obvious rewards. Really dig into the whole system and look for any inconsistencies. I'm sure you are getting exactly what is being rewarded.
Unless you've been living under a rock, you are aware that the current financial crisis is causing many businesses to rethink what they are doing. That often entails scaling back or postponing large innovation efforts, or modifying new product releases to better align with consumers' changing priorities. The intention here is good. Since we won't realize the benefits of the big innovation project until some point in the future, what harm will a few more months do? In the meantime, we can make a few quick hits, and shore up the bottom line. All too often, however, the quick hit becomes an all consuming endeavor for little gain, the big innovation project falls off the rails, and the future arrives with depleted resources and precious little on the horizon.
I happen to be a proponent of quick hits. When they fail to deliver, it's usually not because of a big, bad decision. It's usually the result of several small, good-in-the-moment decisions, that collectively take the project off track. Here are a few things to keep in mind at each small decision point, that should help your quick hit to add value:
Make sure that the quick hit you are undertaking is in fact quick. Define up front what will be done, and stick to it ruthlessly. While a bigger project may benefit from the "while you're doing this, you might as well..." syndrome, a quick hit needs relentless focus.
If at all possible, keep the longer term projects moving, even if at a slower rate. This is hard for tiny companies, but it's crucial. Longer term projects require that people spend more time thinking about the implications of their decisions. Being able to tap into this will help the quick hit team to keep the right goals in mind, and not base everything on expediency.
Regarding expediency, just because something can be done quickly, does not mean it should be done. Putting lipstick on a pig does not change the pig. All this will do is erode your consumers' confidence in you. They will feel like you tried to put something over on them, and they won't want to pay for it. Best to show them that you will only act in their best interest. Everything else is waste. Seth Godin has an interesting post today about making those tough decisions.
Remember that you exist to serve your customers. If you know that your consumers will benefit from a certain feature, function, or service, it's better to make a small change in that direction than to implement something totally new that they care less about. Again, you need to build their confidence that you are there for them, and they will stay with you for the longer haul.
Finally, remember that whatever you do for your quick hit, it will be with you longer than you planned. Undertaking a quick hit diverts resources from other projects, and you may need to depend on the quick hit for longer than initially estimated while the other projects get back on track. Make sure it's something you, and your consumers, will value.
Here is an unfortunate truth about consumer research. No matter how useful the results are, it is very difficult to translate what the research results mean for your next product or service offering. You may learn something that clearly defines a direction for your business. But then there is a person who has to design the website, or make the widget, or decide the pricing for the service plan.
Somewhere in the organization, the original intent often gets lost. The problem is that it often gets lost for many good reasons. "Consumers won't understand this." "Our organization can't do that yet." "I'll get fired if it doesn't work, so I don't want to be the first to try." The result is often a baby step toward the right direction that causes so much organizational agita for very little gain that it is determined that it was a waste of time.
The reason the decision process often goes this way is that it is difficult to translate good consumer insight into an actionable result. Next time, try articulating exactly what tangible criteria will satisfy the consumers' needs. And then define the product or service that satisfies the criteria. Many of these "good reasons" go away when a clear vision of the result is presented. Try it.
Otherwise, consumer research is relegated to informing ad campaigns and marketing messages aimed at convincing consumers to buy what we want to make for them. Don't let that happen to you.